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News >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Change is coming, but we still have to decide how much

UPDATED: Tue., Aug. 6, 2019, 11:15 p.m.

Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / DAN PELLE)
Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / DAN PELLE)

Twenty years ago, Spokane voters stood at a forking road.

There was widespread dissatisfaction and distrust of City Hall. Poverty was worsening, and people complained of “deterioration” downtown. Good jobs were scarce, and voters wanted the city to do something about it.

The city’s entanglement with the redevelopment of River Park Square – a disastrously managed project from the taxpayers’ perspective that nevertheless sparked a downtown renaissance that continues to pay off today – had inspired a political uprising. Critics ran against what they saw as the power structure of insiders operating with little public accountability.

In addition, citizens were debating whether to change its form of government from a city-manager system to a strong-mayor operation, and switch to geographic districting for the City Council.

Wholesale change was in the air, in other words. Deep, fundamental change. Like rain on the way. You can sometimes sense it in politics, a feeling that whatever has been is not going to be any longer. A feeling that apart from the issues and candidate positions and news coverage and advertising and debates, the pendulum is going to swing in part because of political physics – enough voters simply feel it’s time to swing.

Is that where we are this year, as we move toward the end of the first two-term strong mayor and the government he has led? Tuesday’s results don’t really tell us.

The early primary results included both signs of swing – chiefly in Nadine Woodward’s leap to the front of the mayor’s race and strong performances from other critics of the status quo – and signs of support for the current council, with three incumbents leading their races.

The large primary field reflected the fact that a lot of people recognize the high stakes of this election. The two key leadership positions, mayor and council president, will turn over. Twenty-four candidates ran for five City Hall jobs – the most to put their name on the ballot in at least two decades.

The primary winnowed them down to 10 head-to-head contests that will offer clear, distinct differences and strong candidates almost across the board. Most of them break down along the liberal-conservative divide, as well as the incumbent-challenger one.

The primary of September 1999 also attracted a large field. Eighteen candidates sought three council positions, and the primary produced a slate of races that presented voters with clearcut choices between establishment and outsider voices.

Voters weighed in later that year, and the fortunes of the change agents rose between the primary and the general elections. A new council majority of outsiders, led by the voluble critic Steve Eugster, ushered in an era of council conflict over RPS and establishing a new strong-mayor form of government. They had changed the nature and direction of city government for years to come.

“City changes overnight,” read the S-R’s lead headline the morning after that November vote – and we feel those changes still.

Is the city at a similar crossroads now? A throw-it-all-out-and-start-over place? My guess is no. The city has problems, but it’s also been going through a sustained period of relative prosperity. Primary voting can change significantly in the general election. Lots of people on the right are fed up with the liberal City Council, but lots of people in the city are also liberals. I don’t sense that there’s a bottomless well of dissatisfaction for challengers to draw upon.

But to hear the challengers tell it, there is a dissatisfaction with City Hall and need to restore public trust that sounds not unlike the voices of 1999. And several of those challengers did well Tuesday.

Woodward led the mayoral field, in the most closely watched race of the night. She won 42% of the vote to Stuckart’s 37% – a matter of less than 2,000 votes but a strong showing for her nevertheless.

Councilman Breean Beggs led the voting for council president, with 35%, but second-place Cindy Wendle, a newcomer running on a change campaign, picked up 31% and seems likely to grab up a few of third-place finisher Mike Fagan’s votes in the general.

In Council District 1, meanwhile, challengers Tim Benn and Michael Cathcart led the seven-candidate race.

Those results suggest an appetite for change. Overall, though, it’s not so clearcut. Incumbents Karen Stratton and Lori Kinnear took sizable leads in the early vote-counts, for example – meaning that incumbents from the left lead in three of four council races. One might build an argument that the electorate was calling for more of the same.

In truth, Tuesday night’s vote didn’t give us a crystal clear picture. It answered some questions, but immediately posed others.

We’ll answer them for ourselves in November. And the city will change, a little or a lot, overnight.